Ward Room's Old Faces - NBC Chicago
Ward Room
Covering Chicago's nine political influencers

Ward Room's Old Faces



    You may notice two new caricatures on Ward Room today. We’re changing our lineup.

    The new faces -- Ald. Edward Burke and House Speaker Michael Madigan -- are living monuments to the maxim that the more things change in Illinois politics, the more power old Irishmen have. Depending on who is elected mayor, Burke and Madigan may be the state’s two most influential politicians.
    Burke, who was elected to the City Council in 1969 to replace his deceased father, is the dean of aldermen. As chairman of the Finance Committee, he has a seat near the dais, and makes statesmanlike speeches on almost every council matter, often prefacing his remarks with, “as Winston Churchill once said…”

    Having started out when Richard J. Daley was still hale, Burke has been part of every era in modern Chicago politics. Mayor Jane Byrne called him a member of the “evil cabal” that ran the city under her predecessor, Michael Bilandic. Then she turned around and endorsed for state’s attorney against her arch-rival, Richard M. Daley. As Burke put it, “some cabals are more evil than others.” Burke lost, and Daley ran against Byrne three years later. Daley split the white vote, helping elect Harold Washington, who inspired Burke to join the most evil cabal in Chicago history.

    Burke was Ald. Edward Vrdolyak’s lieutenant in The 29, the bloc of white aldermen who tried to block Washington’s every move. When Washington won Council Wars, he unseated Burke as finance committee chairman. Burke ran for mayor in 1989, but dropped out to support Daley -- who put him back in charge of Finance. Burke is smart enough to know there are no permanent friends or enemies in politics. He has also survived the demographic changes in his ward, which in now 80 percent Latino. Burke tried speaking Spanish a few years ago, until Latino politicians told him to stop.

    Burke’s man in the mayor’s race is Gery Chico. Chico grew up in Burke’s ward, and Burke gave him his start in government, as a staffer on the finance committee. Now both are wealthy lawyers. If Chico wins, the city council will again become a co-equal branch of government, with Burke helping to write the budget.

    Michael Madigan has been in politics even longer than Burke. He was elected to the Illinois Constitutional Convention in 1968. Madigan represented West Lawn at that convention, and Richard M. Daley represented Bridgeport. Four years later, he was elected to the state House of Representatives, and by 1982, he was speaker. Madigan has been in charge ever since, except for the two years after the Republican wave of 1994.

    Ultra-disciplined and ultra-secretive, Madigan is the most powerful man in Springfield. He’s chairman of the state Democratic Party, which allows him to control donations to his members -- and thereby control their votes. Nothing passes the legislature without Madigan’s approval. He hated the flighty, preening Rod Blagojevich, and led the impeachment in 2008.

    Of course, Madigan also hated Blagojevich because he possessed something Madigan wants to give his daughter Lisa -- the governorship. Madigan married Lisa’s mother in 1976, when Lisa was 10, and raised her as a member of his own machine. Once Lisa was out of college, and living on the North Side, he ran her against state Sen. Bruce Farley, a former ally who had been indicted for ghost payrolling. (Madigan at first supported U.S. Attorney Jim Burns for governor that year. After Burns charged Farley, Madigan switched his support to Glenn Poshard, who won the primary. Hmmm.) During that campaign, I interviewed Lisa for the Reader.

    “Would you be running for the state senate if you weren’t Michael Madigan’s daughter?” I asked.

     “Absolutely,” she said.

    We were professionals, so we both managed to keep a straight face, even though her campaign headquarters was full of staffers on loan from the speaker’s office.
    Now Lisa is attorney general. She’ll probably run for governor in 2014, but until then, her father is the Madigan to watch.

    Buy this book! Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland's book, Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President , is available Amazon. Young Mr. Obama includes reporting on President Obama's earliest days in the Windy City, covering how a presumptuous young man transformed himself into presidential material. Buy it now!